Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 5 of 5

Well, this is it, my last five animated feature films that everyone should see at least once. I'm wrapping up the list with video games, robots, animated non-'Rodgers and Hammerstein' musicals, and political allegories told by bunnies. At this point, I hope everyone has seen a couple films that they'd love to watch or something from their past that they'd love to watch again. Thanks to everyone for following the countdown.

21. Tron
I have to include Tron in this countdown as it was the film that inspired me to become an animator. While not the first film to use computer animation (and the CG animation only comprises approximately 20 minutes of the film's total running time), in its day, Tron became a milestone for 3d computer graphics and set the stage for the coming years. The story of a maligned computer programmer who finds himself brought into a computer (literally) during his search for justice, Tron was a mixture of old and new animation techniques as the live action scenes inside the computer were filmed in black and white, printed out on film stock, then rotoscoped to add the color. You can find more detail about Tron's production history on their Wikipedia page if, like me, you enjoy geeking out over the techniques used to create this film.

Though not a financial success, Tron did serve as inspiration for many other animators, most notably Pixar founder John Lasseter, who is reported to have said: "without Tron there would be no Toy Story."

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

22. The Tune
No list is complete without mentioning the godfather of American independent animation: Bill Plympton. While Bill has made many feature length animated films (his latest film Cheatin' just screened at the Toronto Animated Image Arts Festival International), I keep going back to his first as my all-time favorite Plympton film: The Tune. As the story goes, after producing a series of successful animated short films, Bill realized he had enough material that could become a feature with the right metastory to tie them all together. The Tune tells the story of a songwriter who is trying to write the perfect song in order to save his job while, at the same time, trying to make it to the boss's office by the end of the day. Where does 'the Tune' fit in? Well during his travels, he bumps into a wide variety of people with their own inspiring songs. Drawn in Bill's signature visual style and animated at five-frames per second, The Tune is filled with Bill's quirky sense of humor and visual gags that have become his trademark.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. If you want a copy though, you have to go to Bill's online store to get one.

23. Wall*E
Wall*E is about as close to a perfect film as I've seen. I have watched this tale about a little robot with a soul almost fifty times at this point and I have yet to find any serious flaws or plot holes in the storytelling. Once again, Pixar proves that they're willing to take risks on unorthodox storytelling--like having the first act of this film told without any dialogue--and reap the benefits of taking that proverbial (and oft clich├ęd) road-less-travelled. If you have the chance, check out Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull's book "Creativity, Inc." Within Chapter 5, you'll find some great information about the 'Pixar Brain Trust' and why it works so well when applied to finding the flaws in their films and fixing them before they hit the screen. I'm not going to go too in depth about Wall*E since at this point, I'm assuming that almost everybody reading this list has seen it at least once. Suffice it to say though, setting aside their enormous technical achievements, Wall*E remains one of the best examples of Pixar's success because in this film they never lose sight of how important it is to tell a good story.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

24. Watership Down
Yes Virginia, the life of a bunny can be a brief and violent one. Much like Animal Farm, Watership Down is a thinly-veiled political allegory that highlights the differences between various political systems--in this case told through the lives of bunnies who are struggling against different forms of tyranny in the search for their own freedom. Watership Down was originally a story by English author Richard Adams, who also wrote an even more gut-wrenching film called Plague Dogs which tackled the difficult subject of animal testing (and incidentally included voice acting by a young Patrick Stewart). Both films can be very tough films to watch as they don't shy away from violence, brutality, and death. While not for younger children, both Watership Down and Plague Dogs can be very good tools for promoting a discussion with older children on topics like the needs of the collective versus the rights of the individual or what is the role of mankind's stewardship of nature when viewed through the lens of tests performed on animals (or through mankind's consumption of animals)? Or perhaps how media can be used to influence our beliefs by provoking emotional responses.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

25. Wreck-it Ralph
Another movie about video games, Wreck-it Ralph is filled with puns and pithy one-liners, like "it's hard to love your job when nobody likes you for doing it." But don't let the plethora of gags fool you, Wreck-it Ralph has more heart than most animated films (and even more live action films). Something that I really appreciated was the path that Disney took with Ralph as he went from anti-hero to actual hero. Ralph's journey is one mistake after another as he starts out his story being a bum and a liar who thinks that he can get what he wants by cheating. By the end of the film, rather than copping out by ending the film with Ralph 'accepting who he is', Disney pushed the story further by having Ralph learn the lesson that you don't have to be thought of as a hero in order to be one despite what your lot in life is. It's very reminiscent of Dr. King's statement: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." There's a lot more that I'd like to write about this film, but it's hard not to write about Ralph's "hero journey" without totally spoilering the film for those who haven't seen it yet. If you have kids, this is a great film to watch with them and discuss the evolution of Ralph's internal character growth.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Honorable Mention: The Illusionist
Like Arrugas (Wrinkles), this is another movie that didn't "need" to be animated. You could have told the entire story in live action and it would have been just as beautiful and as touching. However, much like director Sylvan Chomet's earlier film, the Triplets of Belleville, there is almost no dialogue in this film. By doing so, it's probably one of the main reasons why the film does work better as an animated feature rather than a live action feature--how many live action films out there exist where none of the characters speak? Taken from a script written by the late Jacques Tati, and supposedly inspired by the regret he felt over abandoning his daughter as a baby (and the girl's mother), the Illusionist is the story of an old magician nearing the end of his days as an entertainer who finds himself in the unlikely position of being a father-figure that guides a young girl into womanhood. Setting aside the controversies behind this film, Sylvan Chomet has woven a multi-layered tale filled with bittersweet moments and the recurring theme of the old giving way to the new--whether through the relationship between the Illusionist and Alice or through the vaudeville entertainers who are watching their careers disappear amidst the onslaught of television and rock-and-roll.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.

Well, perhaps we're not 'completely' finished with the countdown. As a special bonus, in two weeks, I'll post a list of six animated features that are great films in their own right and are worth watching, but didn't make my top twenty-five list for one reason or another.